How the Brain Learns to See

The October 2015 issue of Science had an interesting article of how the brain learns to see.  Historically, it was assumed that restoring sight in a teen who had been born blind since birth would be unsuccessful.  Recent studies have now shown that experience isn’t critical for certain visual functions.  It appears that the brain is “prewired to interpret at least some simple aspects of the visual world.”  This continues the observations that “even adult brains can change in structure and function.  It is important to note, however, that restored vision does not reach the same levels of functioning as someone who has had vision since birth.  It is suggested that the age of 8 is the threshold level for developing normal acuity.  The utilization of fMRI’s are beginning to show the changes in the brain before and after cataract surgery.

How can we apply this information to help our students?  Testing the visual component is part of the evaluations performed at Mesilla Valley Education Enhancement Center.  We use the Visagraph goggles after fatiguing the eyes (simulating visual work in the classroom).  Any abnormalities that are suggested initiate a referral to a behavioral optometrist to check for astigmatism, eye-tracking issues, vertical imbalances as well as difficulties in accommodation and acuity.  A traditional eye exam does not check for all of these areas.

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Mastery and Excellence

Math Word Problems 

Many, many students have difficulty with word problems.  They may be able to do the computation at a certain level, but word problems are frequently problematic at the same level.

Let’s assume that a child is having difficulty with word problems in multiplication. This student has just learned their multiplication facts.  I find that if I give them word problems in addition or subtraction, they are able to solve them just fine.  Now they can see that they are capable of doing word problems, just not word problems at the current multiplication level.

We changed the belief system that they “can’t do word problems” to one that is more specific –I can solve addition and subtraction word problems.  Just this little change in belief sets the stage for learning how to solve multiplication word problems.  They are no longer a failure with “all” word problems, just a specific type of word problem.  This opens the door for learning how to decode the multiplication word problems and gives confidence to approach this hurdle. 

Mastery and Excellence

The May/June, 2011, issue of Psychotherapy Networker talks about mastery and excellence.  Three tenants are given that are necessary for excellence to occur.  The first, establishing and knowing your baseline; second, deliberate practice; third, formal, ongoing feedback. 

How do these guidelines apply to what we do at the Enhancement Center?  First, we do find a baseline.  While this is done through testing, some formal and some informal, the purpose is to find out specifically, what skills a student has mastered.

Next we practice.  Mindfully practice.  We look at the patterns, whether it is in mathematics or reading.  We see what is easy, what trips them up.   Practice is spaced repetition, which results in the mastery of the skill. 

Finally, we provide the necessary feedback. The student “knows” what he knows and what is being learned.  We recommend a limit of 20 minutes per day in a subject.  This is not sufficient practice to be truly great in the country and the world, but it is enough practice to be extremely successful in school, in college and in life. 

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Developing Visual Skills for Reading in Young Children

Jigsaw puzzles are a good way to develop visual memory skills in young children. For very young children, begin with wooden puzzles with knobs and very few pieces. These knobs are designed to help develop the muscles for the tripod grip needed for writing.

As the toddler develops, work with puzzles with an increased number of pieces. Try to find puzzles with good contrast. I particularly like Ravensburger puzzles. Tuesday Morning off has them at a reduced price, but for a good selection, check online.

As you increase the number of pieces in a puzzle, some children will work on an interior design. Others will work on the borders. If your child has difficulty with the puzzles, teach them to look for the straight edge on the border pieces, how to recognize a corner (two straight edges) and talk about what pieces you are looking for. The trick is to start out with only a few pieces and gradually work on puzzles with an increased number of pieces.

Having a puzzle available for “spare” moments is great, especially in the winter when children are indoors for longer periods of time.

Mazes are good for eye-hand coordination – and they are fun. Start with simple ones and increase in difficulty. I find that with some children, it is necessary to enlarge the designs for them to be successful and not frustrated. School supply stores and Barnes and Nobles are good sources.

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How You Can Help Your Child Learn to Spell… and pass a spelling test!

How you can help your child learn to spell.

Traditional weekly spelling tests don’t work equally for all kids.  Visual learners do well and auditory learners do poorly.  Spelling is a visual skill, thus favoring the visual learner.

Typically, a teacher will say the word and the child will write the word on a piece of paper.  Practice needs to mimic the format for testing.  That’s why we have the child write the word when practicing at home.  Spelling the word out loud is good for spelling bees, but not weekly spelling tests. 

How can you help your child pass those ineffective tests?

Say the word to your child and have them write it down.  Then have them compare what they’ve written with the target word spelled correctly.  If it is incorrect, have your child fold the paper, covering his/her first attempt.  Write the word again.  Then compare.  If it is spelled correctly repeat the process, folding and covering previous attempts until your child has the word spelled correctly 5 times in a row.  Then go on to the next word. 

It is very important for the child to make the visual comparison.  This exercise will make a huge difference in your child’s ability to pass those dreaded spelling tests.

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